February 23, 2009, 1:08 pm

The UK could suffer future food shortages unless the numbers of skilled people entering the UK farming industry improves, according to research released by Waitrose today. Speaking at an NFU Conference, Waitrose MD Mark Price warned that the industry needs to act immediately to stop the threat of losing its key resource.

Waitrose commissioned IGD to undertake a feasibility study on farmers’ skills. It revealed that a staggering 60,000[1] people need to be recruited by 2019 to ensure a skilled agricultural workforce is maintained in the UK.

The number of farmers has declined by 25% in the last 13 years[2], and this figure will increase unless the agriculture skills gap can be bridged. The UK already relies heavily on imported food so that the demands of a growing population can be met. Comments Mark Price: “Modern farming is a highly skilled operation requiring technical proficiency, business acumen and environmental awareness.

Well-qualified people are essential to its future prosperity. The average age of a farmer is 55 years and unless will can fill the skills gap, there’s a real possibility that the British farmer and self-sufficiency might become a thing of the past”. The IGD research also found that land based industries have some of the highest levels of ‘hard to fill vacancies’ after employers reported problems finding sufficient numbers of skilled people. This will lead to problems maintaining the current level of UK food production.

A recent YouGov poll for Waitrose revealed that 82% of UK consumers are unaware that well over half the pork consumed in the UK is imported from other European Countries, a figure set to rise if the UK is unable to produce its own food because of a lack of farmers. British food production will also be hampered by the current shortage of graduates choosing farming as a career. Farming faces tough competition from other rural enterprises for the share of university leavers.

The IGD research confirms that graduates are increasingly seeking careers in land management positions but not in farming. There is also a lack of individuals with the right technical skills and farmers are already encountering problems finding casual staff to meet high seasonal demands. In finding a solution, Mark Price continues: “Agriculture needs to offer a clear career path and opportunities for the future. With a lack of successors in farming families, more needs to be done to encourage the next generation to stay in agriculture or attract those interested in a rural career. We will be working with our producers to develop more training and support programmes to help protect the future of British farming”.

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